What Is Neopagan Music?
Neopagan music is music created for or influenced by modern Paganism. It has appeared in many styles and genres, including folk music, classical music, singer-songwriter, post-punk, heavy metal and ambient music.
The Latvian neopagan movement Dievturība developed a musical life in the 1930s, focused on the instruments kokles and trīdeksnis, choir music and Latvian folk music. In a 1937 article, the movement’s chief ideologue Ernests Brastiņš laid out the guidelines for the religion’s sermons, which included music that “should create solemn and harmonious feelings”. The responsibility for this had initially fallen on the organist and composer Valdemārs Ozoliņš (1896–1973), who became the first conductor of the Dievturi choir, although little is known about his contributions. The other main contributors were Jānis Norvilis (1906–1994) and Artūrs Salaks (1891–1984). Norvilis raised the level by creating choral arrangements of folk songs and arranged folk music for calendar celebrations. The composer and folklorist Salaks became the Dievturi musical leader in 1936. His music was characterized by diatonic scale and drones, and combined archaic and new elements in what he dubbed “the Latvian style”. In 1938, Salaks released a collection of choral songs titled Latviešu dievestīgās dziesmas(“Latvian songs of adoration”).
Also in the 1930s, the Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt (1908–1981) became affiliated with the Germanic neopaganism of the National Socialist journal Ragnarok and its publisher Hans S. Jacobsen. Jacobsen mainly drew from the theories of Jakob Wilhelm Hauer and promoted the adoration of the Norse gods. This came to influence Tveitt’s musical compositions, notably the ballet Baldurs draumar which premiered in 1938. Tveitt’s status as a composer remains high in Norway, but his activity in this political and religious milieu is a subject of controversy.
Counterculture and second-wave feminism
A self-identified pagan scene for popular music emerged in the United States in the 1970s, largely through the efforts of Gwydion Pendderwen (1946–1982). Pendderwen established an emphasis on folk music and singer-songwriter material. As a legacy from the counterculture of the 1960s, neopaganism in the United States developed a close relationship with the New Age movement. A prominent example of this is the Starwood Festival, held every summer since 1981 in southwestern New York. The festival hosts musical performances, rituals and an eclectic program of workshops.
Kay Gardner (1940–2002) was an adherent of Dianic Wicca and one of the founders of women’s music, which emerged as the musical expression of second-wave feminism. Her works include the oratorio Ouroboros: Seasons of Life—Women’s Passages, written between 1992 and 1994. It portrays a woman’s life cycle from birth to death using the symbols of the Triple Goddess and neopagan holidays. According to the musicologist Ruth A. Solie, feminist music overall had its origin in the Goddess movement, which inspired women to express their inner lives through music.
Neopagan movements in post-war Europe
In Iceland, Ásatrúarfélagið’s first allsherjargoði Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924–1993) was known as both a writer and singer of rímur, a traditional form of alliterative poetry or songs. He can be seen performing in this style in the documentary film Rokk í Reykjavík. In 1982 he released an album, Eddukvæði, where he sings songs from the Poetic Edda. Another work with ties to Ásatrúarfélagið is Odin’s Raven Magic, a 2002 choral and orchestral setting of the Icelandic poem Hrafnagaldr Óðins. It was made by the allsherjargoði Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (born 1958) in collaboration with Sigur Rós and Steindór Andersen.
The folk music group Kūlgrinda was founded in 1989 by Inija (born 1951) and Jonas Trinkūnas (1939–2014), the leaders of the Lithuanian neopagan movement Romuva. The group function as the movement’s musical expression and is an integral part of its rituals. It is specialised on sutartinės, traditional polyphonic song-chants. Romuva’s website describes Kūlgrinda as a “ritual folklore group”.
The Euro-pagan scene
The historian of ideas Stéphane François has labeled a musical current that emerged from industrial music the 1970s and 1980s as the “Euro-pagan scene”. The scene largely overlaps with the dark folk genre, but is “characterized more by a mindset, an overall message, than by a musical genre”.
He associates the themes of the music with the political right, especially the conservative revolutionary movement, but also sets it apart from right-wing culture through its willingness to engage in avant-garde artistic expressions. Frequent subjects in the song lyrics include ancient history, the Middle Ages and World War II. In addition to Europeanist themes and references to the occult, François identifies explicit examples of neopaganism from the very beginning of the scene, through people such as Robert N. Taylor of the band Changes. Other examples include the band Sol Invictus, Ian Read of the band Fire + Ice; who also is the director of the Rune-Gild’s journal Rûna; and collaborations between the Dutch neopagan Freya Aswynn and several British groups. In the early 2000s, some people within the scene became influenced by the Nouvelle Droite; Michael Jenkins Moynihan of the band Blood Axis, who also edits the journal Tyr, became increasingly influenced by Alain de Benoist.
Although François describes the early and more influential bands as well-informed about their themes, he also identifies a strong presence of “diluted esotericism”. The conventions and cultural references established by the early groups do not necessarily correspond to a particular worldview among the newer bands that copy them.
Pagan rock music as a particular genre emerged from British post-punk, especially gothic rock. According to the writer, journalist and DJ Jason Pitzl-Waters, many younger pagans in the 1980s and 1990s adopted gothic rock as their preferred alternative to the tastes of the baby boom generation, which at the time dominated the neopagan institutions. By the mid 2000s, the genre had fully integrated into the mainstream of those institutions.
Some mythic themes occurred in goth lyrics from the early 1980s, as part of the genre’s propensity for the romantic, medieval and primordial. This became more prominent in the “second wave” of the genre, spanning from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. One of the most successful bands of this wave, Fields of the Nephilim, make ample references to the occult and paganism in their lyrics. Another band from this wave is Inkubus Sukkubus, formed in 1989 and explicitly referring to itself as a pagan band above everything else. Inkubus Sukkubus had a mainstream breakthrough in the United Kingdom with the release of its debut album in 1993, and would go on to perform at both mainstream venues and neopagan events. The success of Inkubus Sukkubus inspired a number of other British bands to adopt a “Pagan-Goth identiy”, something that quickly spread to other countries. The Australian-British band Dead Can Dance, formed in 1981, has also had a significant impact on neopagan bands, although neither of its own members has expressed any allegiance to paganism. Dead Can Dance began as a goth band but has continuously added elements such as world music and references to mythology to its style. Openly pagan or occult-oriented bands with a clear debt to Dead Can Dance include Seventh Harmonic, Atrium Animae, Daemonia Nymphe and Íon. The annual music festival Wave-Gotik-Treffen in Leipzig, which focuses on genres such as gothic rock and dark wave, has a “Pagan Village” for pagan festival goers.
Heavy metal music inherited an interest in Satanism and the occult from its progenitors in 1960s rock music. Beginning in Scandinavia around 1990, many metal bands came to replace the Satanic theme with an interest in paganism. Few of these musicians regarded themselves as religious, but the black metal scene in particular developed an affinity for paganism and folk customs. An example is a 1995 essay by the Austrian musician Gerhard “Kadmon” Petak, which quotes from Otto Höfler to draw parallels between black metal and traditions surrounding the Wild Hunt motif. The essay first became influential in the Alpine black metal scene, and received wider distribution when an English translation was included in the 1998 book Lords of Chaos.
Among metal bands that explicitly profess to religious paganism are Arkona from Russia and Falkenbach from Germany.
Eclecticism: ethno-gothic, pagan folk and ambient
Another eclectic German performer is Andrea Haugen. In her projects Aghast, Hagalaz’ Runedance and Nebelhexë she expresses a Germanic paganism focused on the cycles of nature and feminine mysteries. Her musical influences are a mix of styles that have impacted neopagans, such as the English neofolk of Sol Invictus and Fire + Ice, the dark wave of Dead Can Dance, and Scandinavian folk music acts like Hedningarna and Mari Boine.
The musicians of the Norwegian group Wardruna have a background in the metal genre, and have subsequently influenced some metal bands. Wardruna have created ambient musicbased on the runes and their meaning. They aim to use “the oldest of Nordic instruments”; this has included harp, frame drum, mouth harp and goat horn, and the natural sounds of trees, rocks and water.
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